Science Fiction

I have on occasion heard people refer to science fiction such as “Star Trek” dismissively, as TGGP did a short while ago, and I’ve never really understood it. I recognize that Star Trek has a poor reputation with some as low-quality, mindless, escapist ,”shooting ray guns at aliens that are really men in rubber suits” fiction; I further recognize that some people view all science fiction that way.

But why? I can’t comprehend.

Science fiction tries to combine two very different criteria for literature: the exploration of ‘philosophical’ and scientific concepts, and the telling of character-driven stories. The very best manage them both at the same time, although it’s difficult and rare.

Much of the genre focuses upon the use of ‘realistically’ plausible alternative settings to showcase allegorical or symbolic stories by disguising the ultimate theme – which is really what most of storytelling has been since the days of Aesop and before. There is sometimes very little science in the science fiction – for example, Firefly didn’t concern itself with the technical details of how the ‘Verse worked, or the precise nature of the technology bandied about. Those were secondary to the purpose of the show, which was to present complex and sympathetic characters in a way such that viewers found it desirable to establish mental models of them, then develop them in such a way that the viewers could enjoy the process of learning and updating those models. Drama, in other words.

Some science fiction concerns itself almost entirely with philosophical or technical abstractions – see Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series – and literary ‘authorities’ often complain about the lack of human drama. When the human drama is emphasized to the point where the story is really fantasy in science’s clothing, they complain about that, too. (I shudder to imagine the mind that finds fantasy boring.)

The worst of shows like Star Trek was trite, boring, and insipid – but at its best, it crafted insightful and fascinating stories that engaged the minds of millions of people, and in some cases changed the way they saw the world. And, very occasionally, they produced moments of perfect beauty. I don’t see the shame in that.

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4 Responses to “Science Fiction”

  1. It wasn’t my intent to be dismissive. I never really watched Star Trek either (though I did see the movie where they go back in time and fight the Borg). For an afficianado there likely are obvious differences between various Sci-Fi shows, but at a surface level they seem similar.

  2. Oh, God. That is widely considered to be a horrible movie – but one of the better Next Generation movies, which were uniformly terrible.

    Try viewing Star Treks II, IV, and VI for a better idea of what a good Trek movie is – and see I, III, and V for examples of various failure modes. (I is underrated, but has a very different tone from the original series, which has a lot to do with why it’s unpopular.)

    Watching the show would be more enlightening – and even then, quite a lot of quality science fiction gets a rough start until it finds its feet. The first seasons of both ST:TNG and Babylon 5 are widely known to have had the weakest scripts and cheesiest plots. The Original Series of Trek was a sixties TV show – it almost defines cheese. Still, there is much of interest to be found for the sympathetic viewer.

    Even so, there are a few episodes that I suspect you would appreciate. I particularly recommend the episodes “Mind War” and “And The Sky Full of Stars” of B5 S1.

  3. Nick Tarleton Says:

    But why? I can’t comprehend.

    Snobbishness, I would think. Probably not honest disagreement.

  4. I’m one of those people for whom the singularity concept ruined science fiction beyond its horizon. I can still get enjoyment out of near term hard science fiction. But these days just reading the real time blogs (and vlogs, and podcasts) of cutting edge experts and science journalists in the field is substantially the same thing. Like TGGP anticipated in his post tags, who needs a space opera when we have the lived drama of sciencey bloggers and posters.

    It’s interesting that I found science fiction books more interesting as a kid than science popularizing books, and probably still would today, but that I find scientist blogs more interesting as an adult than science fiction author blogs, and I think I would’ve as a kid, too. I suspect that it’s because the drama in the comments and between scientist bloggers makes the experience also more dramatic, in line with Melendwyr’s definition.

    Great post, Melyndwyr!

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